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Coping with COVID-19: Lessons from the Best CIOs

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COVID-19
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One of my customers, a respected CIO of a large financial services company based in the Northeast, told me something recently that puts the COVID-19 crisis in perspective. “Before the pandemic, I managed 61 work sites,” he said. “Now, I manage 27,000 sites. Most of those have lousy last-mile service, unreliable consumer-grade networking gear, and absolutely zero IT footprint.” He went on to tell me that just keeping the lights on had been the biggest challenge of his career.

It is unlikely that this CIO’s experience was unique. To explore how hard COVID-19 has impacted enterprises in the US, Catchpoint commissioned ReRez Research to conduct the Catchpoint 2020 CIO New Normal survey. We surveyed 200 CIOs and 200 work-from-home managers during July 2020. We talked to small (1,000 to 2,499 employees), medium (2,500 to 4,999 employees), and large (over 5,000 employees) enterprises dispersed throughout the US and from a wide range of industries.

We found that this CIO’s experience was, indeed, not unique but also that not all enterprises fared the same during the pandemic. We also uncovered lessons about how America’s best CIOs performed remarkably well during this worldwide crisis.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Enterprise

How COVID-19 is ravaging our economy has been well documented. More than 11 million workers have lost their jobs, GDP has fallen by 38 percent, and select industries (travel, hospitality, food service) have been decimated. We wanted to see how the enterprises we surveyed fared specifically.

In terms of business metrics, our respondents listed impacts on profitability, revenue, and employee satisfaction as having the greatest impact on their operations. In terms of IT metrics, cyber-security issues, lowered application reliability, and lowered network reliability had the greatest impact.

There were also big changes to how the enterprises worked. The number of employees working from home (WFH) soared to 74 percent during the pandemic from 33 percent before the pandemic. Face-to-face customer interactions fell from 43 to 13 percent during the pandemic. The biggest change during the crisis, which will come as a surprise to no one, is that Zoom meetings (or their equivalent) were the biggest gain during the pandemic.

Finally, as things “normalize” and enterprises begin to set up their “new normal,” we are seeing that these changes will linger. Going forward, 42 percent of employees will continue to work from home at least some of the time and nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of customer interactions will continue to be remote.

None of these findings is particularly surprising, although it is interesting to see the actual percentages. What was surprising is that not all enterprises were impacted to the same degree.

Grading on a Curve

As we analyzed the data, we noticed that not all enterprises were faring the same. Some had horrendous losses, while others actually grew revenue. The same was true of employee satisfaction scores, security issues and IT reliability.

To tease out these differences methodically, we assigned scores to every metric. If a company grew revenues, for example, they scored positive points; if revenues fell, they received negative points. The number of points depended on the scale of the rise or fall.

We did this for every metric and then added all the points. The cumulative scores allowed us to divide the enterprises into three tiers: top, middle, and bottom. When we compared the top-tier enterprises to the bottom-tier, the differences were striking.

In terms of business impacts, during the pandemic, the top-tier was 2.6 times as likely to report strong revenue growth than the bottom-tier. They were also 2.5 times as likely to be profitable and 2.1 times as likely to report high employee satisfaction scores.

The same was true with IT metrics, where the top-tier was 1.9 times as likely to report high application reliability, 1.6 times as likely to report high network reliability, and 1.6 times as likely to report success with cyber-security issues.

True, it is axiomatic that the top-tier enterprises were doing better than the bottom-tier; that is how we tiered them in the first place—but just how much better was a compelling finding. Even more interesting was our next question: What was the top-tier doing differently to achieve such improved results?

Lessons from Top-Tier CIOs

We found four key differences in how the top-tier enterprises reacted to the crisis:

1) Focus on Reliability. First, 91 percent of the top-tier have implemented a formal site reliability engineering methodology (SRE). This compares to 69 percent of bottom-tier organizations. As part of this commitment to reliability, 98 percent of top-tier organizations said that tools that monitor both their employees’ and customers’ journeys were crucial (compared to 75 percent and 61 percent of the bottom-tier ones).

This was reflected in the use of monitoring tools. In fact, the top-tier used 2.8 times as many separate monitoring tools as the bottom-tier. These tools included employee device monitoring, real user monitoring and synthetic monitoring.

2) Focus on Work-from-Home Tools. The top-tier was committed to making work-from-home (WFH) employees as productive as possible. For example, top-tier enterprises were 33 percent more likely to train their employees in work-from-home technologies.

Top-tier organizations also did a better job of equipping their WFH employees; they were nearly three times as likely to say that their employees’ collaboration tools were extremely effective.

Finally, top-tier enterprises selected better hybrid cloud providers and were three times as likely to report that their vendors enabled them to deliver both services and apps.

3) General Networking Initiatives. Top-tier organizations engaged more with cutting-edge initiatives that optimize remote work. They used automation to help IT stretch their presence (both robotic process automation and automation of routine business tasks). They were also 1.5 times as likely to have deployed SD-WAN and AIOps.

4) Cutting-Edge Security Initiatives. Prior to the pandemic, the industry was working hard to come to grips with how distributed computing and cloud computing impacts security. In the past, security meant firewalls to keep the bad guys out, but in today’s world, employees and their apps are often outside those very firewalls.

Gartner addresses this issue when describing a new approach to security—the secure access service edge (SASE). With SASE, security services are deployed from the cloud to secure assets wherever they sit.

It turns out that SASE was purpose-built for the kinds of issues the pandemic brought to the forefront, and, not surprisingly, top-tier enterprises were more engaged with precisely these kinds of initiatives. They were invested with security management, software-defined parameters, SASE, VPNs, and zero-trust networks.

To summarize, those enterprises that were proactive about IT before the pandemic were well positioned to handle the tough challenges that COVID-19 forced upon them.

Recommendations

The findings were a mixture of the obvious (the pandemic was tough on enterprises) and surprising (some enterprises actually fared quite well). To me, the lesson is this: focus on user experience. In a time when your customers and employees are feeling untethered, you need to double down on ensuring that their experiences with your company remain positive.

How? Well, I may be biased, but I believe that monitoring holds the key. Specifically, I would recommend focusing on three types of user monitoring:

  • Proactive (synthetic) monitoring lets you simulate the kinds of interactions that customers and employees engage in from their locations. This identifies problems before they can impact your customer and employee experiences and while you still have time to fix the issues.
  • Real user monitoring watches what is happening as your customers access your digital assets. It spots real problems happening to real users in real time. Think of this as your last line of defense. IT can proactively engage to fix problems as they occur.
  • Endpoint monitoring focuses on monitoring your employees’ experiences directly on their devices and ensures that they have reliable and high-performance access to all the apps and systems they need to be productive and happy.

But do not take my word for it. Simply note that the top-tier was 50 to 60 percent more likely to employ these monitoring tools than the bottom-tier.

 

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